JIM LEHRER: And to our Newsmaker interview with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. I spoke with her today in her ceremonial office at the Capitol after President-elect Obama’s economic speech.
Madam Speaker, welcome.
Do you agree with President-elect Obama that economic catastrophe of irreversible proportions is coming if an economic stimulus package is not passed soon?
REP. NANCY PELOSI, D.-Calif., Speaker of the House: I agree that we are in a deep economic recession and that it is only getting worse. We’ve asked for a recovery package for over a year now with some of the elements that President-elect Obama is proposing. And I do agree that we must act and we must act now.
JIM LEHRER: Now, define “now.” How soon is “now”?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: “Now” is to go through the — accept the president-elect’s proposal, have Congress work its will on it, and have it signed, sealed and delivered for the American people before we leave for the Presidents’ Day recess.
JIM LEHRER: That is your deadline?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: That’s my deadline. And if we do not have agreement and a bill by then, we won’t have a recess. We cannot leave here without an economic recovery package for the American people, because, as the president-elect has said, the consequences are very severe.
We will lose 500,000 jobs a month, a month. So this is long overdue. We begged President Bush to take action. The recession has only deepened. We must act, and we must act now.
JIM LEHRER: Do you support the Obama plan?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Such as I understand it. We’re becoming — made more aware of the size and some of the particulars of it.
But I remind you that we campaigned on many of these issues, have been for years, and now we have a president-elect who is taking that message to the American people. And about 80 percent of the American people support the Obama recovery agenda, and so do we.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s go through about what is known or what you know at least. Is it about $800 billion? Is that it?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: I don’t know what the figure will be.
JIM LEHRER: Somewhere in that neighborhood?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: I haven’t gotten up that high yet, but that’s what I’m hearing.
JIM LEHRER: And do you — is it correct to say that it’s roughly half expenditures or spending and half in tax cuts?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: My hope would have been that it would — I was working on a $600 billion figure, $400 billion in investments, $200 billion in tax cuts. As it gets bigger, I think that proportion is appropriate, as well.
JIM LEHRER: But you have not gone through the details with President-elect Obama yet, right?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, what we have done is we know what our priorities are, because we’ve passed an economic recovery package over and over again in the House.
It’s about investing in a green infrastructure in America. It’s about investing in innovation, to keep America number one and competitive in the world. It’s about having investments in the education and health of our children. And it’s about using science, technology, and innovation to reverse global warming and making us energy independent.
Those are some of the priorities. What we have been working together to do is to see how we choose the particular initiatives, functions of government that can create jobs immediately, addressing those priorities.
JIM LEHRER: What about things like unemployment benefits? Is that going to be part of it?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: That would have to be in there. There’s a countercyclical — a piece that is associated with the fact that we are in recession.
So food stamps, aid to the states, in terms of Medicaid and unemployment insurance, and a modernization of the unemployment insurance to help with the administration of it, as well as extending the benefit.
These are not only important to the people that are affected by them — hard-working Americans who have lost their jobs — they are a stimulus to the economy. They help grow the economy. That money will be spent immediately, inject demand into the economy, grow jobs.
'Helping middle-class America'
JIM LEHRER: Under the Obama plan as he laid out today, for instance, on the tax cut area, he said he would give $1,000 tax cut to every working family. Do you support that?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: I support that. And I'd like to go further, in terms of tax credits for children.
JIM LEHRER: What about $3,000 for each small business?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, you know, rather than go over the particulars of the plan, may I just say that what -- in a broader sense, from the standpoint of our investments, as well as in the tax cuts and credits, what we want to do is to create 3 million jobs.
And we want to give a middle-income tax cut. Probably 95 percent at least of the American people will receive tax relief in the proposal that we are putting forth. It's about helping middle-class America.
JIM LEHRER: Now, a couple of leading Democrats in the Senate raised questions about the Obama plan today and said that -- Senator Conrad, Senator Kerry said, wait a minute, you're not going to really create more jobs by doing tax credits, tax breaks or tax credits. The money should go directly or more directly just to expenditures. You disagree with that conceptually?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, there's no question -- on Wednesday, yesterday, we had a forum of our Democratic Steering and Policy Committee at which Martin Feldstein, who was an economic adviser to President Reagan, Mark Zandi, who was economic adviser to John McCain, Robert Reich, you see the range...
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
REP. NANCY PELOSI: ... came in. And, by and large, we were told that, especially by Mark Zandi, that the investments will create more jobs than the tax cuts. But we need -- but I contend that we need both.
The tax cuts, again, will be tax relief for middle-income Americans, giving them more discretionary money, injecting demand into the economy, creating jobs.
JIM LEHRER: In a general way, the way you see this, you get the Obama plan, is it an Obama plan that you then accept or do you then take and then play with, you, meaning the Congress of the United States?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, I don't know if I would say "play with," but I will say that any -- we welcome the initiative of the president of the United States for a very necessary economic recovery initiative.
Congress will work its will on it. I don't think the final product will be much different because this is -- the president has to sign the bill, after all.
So I'm optimistic that, in a couple of weeks, we'll have markups of the bill in the House and in the Senate. If there's differences, we'll go to conference, and we will have the bill signed into law before the presidents' week recess. And if we don't, we won't have a recess until we finish the bill.
JIM LEHRER: The conventional wisdom is that, because of the make-up of the new Congress, both in the House and the Senate, there are enough Democratic votes to pass whatever then-will-be-President Obama wants.
The issue is, do you and other Democratic leaders want Republicans to support this, as well? Do you want a bipartisan bill in a really significant way?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Yes, we do. I think that one of the hallmarks of this presidency -- and I welcome it -- is a spirit of bipartisanship and civility and respecting every voice and every view. And the initiative will have more legitimacy the more support it has in the Congress. And it can be sustained.
So I am -- we're hoping that we can come to terms on both pieces of it -- the investment side and the tax side -- and then communication with my Republican leader in the House, John Boehner, about how we would proceed to do that.
When we did the rebate package last year, we got in a room until it was done. This year, this is a much bigger package. It has many more priorities in it. The committees, at least Appropriations and Finance, will have to have their markups.
The other committees of jurisdiction have, by and large, had their hearings over time. They may want to have more.
So, as Congress works its will, the public and the members of Congress will be much more aware of what is in the package. And I think they will be very pleased, because it is -- its purpose, of course, is job creation, grow the economy.
So it's immediate for job creation, but it's about economic stabilization, as well.
'We must act now'
JIM LEHRER: So it doesn't matter to you whether it's known as the Obama plan, the Democratic plan, or whatever label gets on it doesn't matter to you?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, I think it is the Obama plan.
JIM LEHRER: It is the Obama plan?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: I think it is the Obama plan. And I believe that whatever concessions we have to make, in terms of some priorities or on the tax side will be worth it to have a unity of support for it. That's what our hope is.
But one thing is for sure: We must have a bill signed into law by the middle of February. Our economy requires it. The American people need it desperately.
And one word I would use to say -- to describe all of this is confidence, and get confidence that they can get results for this new administration in Washington, D.C., they have confidence that they can get a job, and that things will be done differently, and we'll have prosperity for the many, instead of just the few.
JIM LEHRER: President-elect Obama spoke today about -- to get all this done, it's going to require more than just a really good plan and a lot of this and that. It's going to require a whole new spirit...
REP. NANCY PELOSI: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: ... that's his term -- in Washington and in Congress, as well as everywhere else. What do you think he means by that?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, I welcome everything that he is saying, because this is what many of us came here to do, the -- again, the spirit of bipartisanship and civility.
But in addition to that, a whole new way of accountability. How is this money spent? What are the results we're getting for it? Transparency, so that people know from the start clearly what is in this bill. And, of course, the Internet helps us convey that there in real-time to the American people.
And, also, about a spirit of working together -- I said bipartisanship, but also Democrats among Democrats, Congress with the White House -- to get results, because what we do has to be relevant to meeting the needs of the American people.
There's great concern in our country about what is happening to our economy, and we must address it and act now.
JIM LEHRER: Are you confident that the government of the United States is even capable of spending this kind of money that would be in a stimulus package in an efficient, non-wasteful way?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Yes, I am. And that's really what we're doing now is -- we know what the priorities are. We want to see what we call the absorptive capacity. What can be absorbed by each initiative that we're taking so that the money can be invested, and we can create jobs immediately, and that we can account to the American people for the outcomes there?
And if there's any lack of confidence that we can do that, we have to change that. But that's what this new change in Washington is all about. That's what we look forward to working in a bipartisan way with the Obama administration.
And we'll have some other bills. We'll have accountability in this package written in.
But we will have -- Mr. John Tanner, who's a member from Tennessee, has a proposal about inspector general reports on a regular basis to the Congress on tracking the money and how it is spent. Fiscal soundness is essential to what we do.
And that's why, when you ask about the number, we want to do enough so that it makes an impact on the economy, but be careful not to weight it down too heavily to grow the deficit, without the commensurate dynamic of, again, reversing the economic recession that we're in.
So fiscal discipline will be part of everything that we do. And fiscal discipline requires us not only to rein in the spending, but to account for it and to make sure we're getting the results the American people or the taxpayer has paid for.
Relationship with the White House
JIM LEHRER: On the relationships issue, Senator Reid, the Senate majority leader, said the other day, he said this week that Barack Obama, "I don't work for Barack Obama. I work with Barack Obama, but not for Barack Obama." How would you describe your relationship?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, I -- you know, we are an independent branch of government. I am the speaker of the House; Mr. Reid is the leader in the Senate, the Democratic leader in the Senate. Barack Obama is the president of the United States. And we all respect each other's role.
And we also respect the voice of the American people. They elected many more people to Congress. We have stronger majorities here. They elected Barack Obama to make change in Washington, D.C. And we must respect that.
And I look forward to continuing my work with the president-elect, and especially when he becomes president, to bring that change, again, in a bipartisan way, with transparency, openness, and accountability, and fiscal discipline.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think it's fair to say -- would you be comfortable being judged as the speaker of the House, in terms of your success, based on how much of the Obama agenda gets enacted by the House?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: I'd be very comfortable with that, because I have high regard for the Obama agenda. And it is one that over the years we have been fighting for, in terms of investments in the future, investments in our children and their future, and making the future better.
And then the spirit of Obama of bipartisanship, and civility, and openness, and fiscal discipline, yes, I would be pleased to associate my speakership with that and how we can work together to get the job done for the American people.
Evaluating the Bush legacy
JIM LEHRER: Finally, with 10 days to go, how does the George W. Bush presidency look to you?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: You know, Jim, I found this almost impossible to believe, but I am speaker of the House because a number of years ago -- was it three -- Harry Reid and I challenged President Bush on his privatization of Social Security.
We took our message to the American people. We had a thousand town hall meetings across America to fight him so we could protect Social Security and fight the privatization.
I recently read and heard on Jay Leno last night that President Bush, when asked what his proudest achievement was as president, was his attempt to privatize Social Security.
Well, frankly, that was the beginning of the end for the Republicans in Congress and led to the election of Barack Obama. Not a good idea, first and foremost, for Social Security, for our seniors and those who depend on Social Security.
And it was just curious to me that, of all things that the president would have said, something that I think was bad policy, but also that he did not succeed with.
So I, you know, have great respect personally for President Bush. I certainly respect the office of the president. The president's legacy is of his own making. And I wish him well as he goes forward.
There's absolutely no question that today in the House of Representatives, when we had -- the vote of the Electoral College was taken there was one of the proudest political days of my life. I'm overjoyed at the election of Barack Obama. I look forward to working with him, no offense to President Bush.
JIM LEHRER: OK. No characterization of his presidency?
REP. NANCY PELOSI: I think it's a presidency of missed opportunities. He took us to a war without end. I think that the Bush presidency did great harm to America with this war, with the enormous budget deficits, the challenges to the Constitution of the United States, the financial crisis that we are in.
Maybe that's why that was all the president could point to, his attempt to privatize Social Security. But in this downturn in the financial -- the stock market, thank God we won that fight.
JIM LEHRER: Madam Speaker, thank you.
REP. NANCY PELOSI: Thank you very much, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: For the record, we've extended an invitation to House Republican Leader John Boehner to come on the NewsHour, and we expect that to happen very soon.